Story of Your Life is narrated by Dr. Louise Banks on the night her daughter is conceived. Throughout the story, she narrates the events of her daughter's future life and recounts the arrival of a breed of aliens, referred to as "heptapods," on Earth. At the beginning of the story, she is approached by a government official, Colonel Weber, and a physicist, Dr. Gary Donnelly. Colonel Weber wants her to provide insight into the heptapods' language from a sound recording. Dr. Banks informs him that an audio recording is not enough—she needs to converse to a native speaker.
Dr. Banks's request to talk to a native speaker is approved, and she is taken out to one of the "looking-glasses"—communication devices that the heptapods have placed at 112 different locations on Earth. She is assigned the task of learning about their language while Dr. Donnelly is assigned to learning about their physics and mathematics. Dr. Banks sets up her equipment for her linguistic fieldwork: "microphone, sound spectrograph, portable computer, and speaker" (97). As she does so, two of the heptapods enter. She tries to begin learning their language but makes little headway beyond learning the word heptapods use to refer to themselves. She also learns the word for "chair" and begins to understand what their word for "yes" might be. She labels the words that she finds "Heptapod A," in the chance that the heptapods speak different languages. Dr. Banks tries to pronounce the word for "heptapod" herself, but, as expected (since humans and heptapods do not have the same vocal tracts) her words sound little like the heptapods' words, and the heptapods do not understand her.
Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly go to speak with Colonel Weber about their first day progress. Dr. Banks tells Colonel Weber that she has an idea for how they can make faster progress: she wants to switch to studying their writing as well as speech. She hopes being able to see the words written out will help her make progress in recognizing spoken sounds. Dr. Banks assumes that if the heptapods have a writing system, it is bound to be consistent, which means it will be easier for her to recognize repeating graphemes. Colonel Weber agrees to Dr. Banks's request for a digital camera and big video screen in order to begin recording heptapod writing. Meanwhile, Dr. Banks remembers a day in the future when her daughter is sixteen years old. Dr. Banks has already split up with her daughter's father, and she is headed out on a date. The next day, at the looking glass, Dr. Banks begins her attempts to learn the heptapod written language. She begins to compile heptapod words—both spoken and written. She is initially disappointed to learn that the heptapods use a logographic script (each individual word is referred to as a "logogram")—this means that she will have a harder time distinguishing the sounds between the words, since they are not being spelled phonetically. She and Dr. Donnelly nickname the heptapods Flapper and Raspberry.
The next day, Dr. Banks tries to get an understanding of heptapod verbs—she employs Dr. Donnelly's help to do so. Dr. Donnelly acts out the verbs while she types out the corresponding word in English on the screen. Before long, the heptapods were doing the same. In the spectrographs of the spoken language, Dr. Banks can see the word for "heptapod" paired with what she assumes to be the verb. However, in the written language, she finds it impossible to distinguish the noun from the verb: "For each action, they had displayed a single logogram instead of two separate ones" (105). She realizes that some of the logograms look like the logogram for "heptapod" with some extra strokes added, as if the nouns and verbs were being written as a single word. Dr. Banks realizes that the heptapod script is not separated into words; instead, "they join the logograms by rotating and modifying them" (105-6). She comes to the conclusion that in order to be able to communicate with the heptapods in their own language, she will not be able to translate English words into heptapod—she will first have to learn the rules of their script.
Dr. Banks commits herself to learning the basics of the heptapod language: phonemics/graphemics, vocabulary, syntax. She is helped by the fact that the heptapods at every looking glass are using the same language, which allows the linguists placed at every looking glass to pool their observations and discoveries. She is most confused by the heptapods' writing. Eventually, Dr. Banks has a breakthrough: it is a semasiographic writing system, meaning that their writing "conveys meaning without reference to speech" (108). She demonstrates what this means to Dr. Donnelly by drawing a circle with a line through it on a board. This sign means "not allowed," but it does not correspond to any specific words. She determines that the heptapod writing system has a visual syntax that is unrelated to the verbal syntax of their speech. She explains this difference to Dr. Donnelly: "In their spoken language, a noun has a case marker indicating whether it's a subject or object. In their written language, however, a noun is identified as subject or object based on the orientation of its logogram relative to that of the verb" (109). Essentially, the heptapod written and spoken languages have their own grammar and syntax—they are completely different languages. She decides to refer to the spoken language as "Heptapod A" and the written language as "Heptapod B." She wonders aloud if the Heptapods evolved two different languages in order to open up a second communications channel, where they can create different kinds of meaning.
As time goes on, the scientists at each looking glass begin trying to learn heptapod terminology for elementary mathematics and physics. They make very little headway: "for anything remotely abstract, we might as well have been gibbering" (113). However, the linguists are making advances. They decode the grammar of Heptapod A, which is characterized by free word order and center-embedding of clauses. They also learn more about Heptapod B: namely, that the way in which semagrams are written change their meaning. Additionally, every written grapheme is "non-segmental," meaning it cannot be isolated from the rest of the semagram. As the linguists advance, they ask the heptapods why they came; each time, their answers are "to see" or "to observe." Dr. Banks begins writing sentences in Heptapod B, but it looks convoluted, "like a heptapod-written sentence that had been smashed with a hammer and then inexpertly taped back together" (115).
Dr. Donnelly tells Dr. Banks they have made a breakthrough in studying heptapod physics: the heptapods understand Fermat's Principle of Least Time, which states that the path a light ray takes is always the fastest possible route. This principle requires variable calculus in order to be able to understand. Dr. Donnelly starts thinking that "the heptapods' idea of what's simple doesn't match ours" (120). Ultimately, however, even though heptapods and humans' approaches to physics or math "were almost the reverse of one another," in the end, "both were systems of describing the same physical universe" (121).
A linguist, Cisneros, from the Massachusetts looking glass poses a question that Dr. Banks spends time thinking about: it has become clear that word order is unimportant in Heptapod A, but is this also the case in Heptapod B? Dr. Banks asks Flapper and Raspberry to demonstrate writing a semagram, to determine if there is a preferred word order in writing. Flapper and Raspberry write a sentence, and Dr. Banks notices that the semagram is started with "a single sinuous line." This line is part of "several different clauses" in the sentence. As a result, Dr. Banks infers that "the heptapod had to know how the entire sentence would be laid out before it could write the very first stroke" (123). Later, Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly have dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Dr. Donnelly tells Dr. Banks that the heptapods do not see the universe in terms of cause and effect, as humans do; instead, like Fermat's Principle assumes of light, their understanding is teleological—they seem to know everything that will happen before it even begins.
Dr. Banks continues practicing Heptapod B and notices that as she understands the language better, it changes the way that she thinks. She begins to think in Heptapod B rather than in English, which brings her into a "meditative state" in which she thinks about "the way in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable" (127). She attends a lecture with a representative from the State Department in which he suggests that the scientists begin trying to stimulate trade between the humans and the heptapods. Now that she has a stronger grasp of heptapod physical laws, Dr. Banks begins to wonder if it is possible to know the future. In terms of the laws of physics, in which there is "no physical difference between past and future," the answer is "yes, technically." However, this is impossible, "because of free will" (131). In order to describe this impossibility, Dr. Banks imagines a Borgesian Book of Ages, in which everything that is ever known about the universe, past or present, is written. This book is an impossibility, because whoever reads it will learn their future but will still have free will to decide not to do it. Therefore, in order for free will to exist, no one would be able to read the book and what is written inside. However, she also considers a solution to this impossibility: "What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoke a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?" (132).
Dr. Donnelly invites Dr. Banks over to dinner at his house. Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly go to a market, where Dr. Banks sees a wooden salad bowl. She remembers that the bowl will land on her daughter's head in the future and she knows she must buy it. She explains: "the motion didn't feel like something I was forced to do. Instead it seemed just as urgent as my rushing to catch the bowl when it falls on you: an instinct that I felt right in following" (131). Dr. Banks writes, in the present, that she has a recurring dream about her daughter's death; at the same time, she reveals that her daughter's father is Dr. Donnelly and that her daughter will die when she's 25 years old from a rock-climbing accident.
Dr. Banks becomes more fluent in Heptapod B and writes a long sentence on the whiteboard in Heptapod B. She notes that she understands why the heptapods developed a semasiographic writing system—it allows for the fact that heptapods live life both sequentially (which suits spoken language more) and all at once (which suits writing). Dr. Banks realizes that the heptapods are "neither free nor bound" due to their knowledge of the future: "they don't act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons" (137). The heptapods' "motives" coincide with "history's purposes" (137). As a result, "freedom" is not an illusion, but it does only hold true weight within the human context. Dr. Banks reveals that now that she knows the future, "[she] would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what [she] know[s]" (137).
Colonel Weber arrives for an exchange with Flapper and Raspberry in which Dr. Banks is going to act as a translator. Dr. Banks tells Colonel Weber that the heptapods are willing to engage in an exchange, which is not a trade. As she talks to Colonel Weber, she knows exactly what she is supposed to say. Colonel Weber cannot see the future, "yet his responses matched his assigned lines exactly" (139). Dr. Banks notes in writing that she does not see the world exactly as the heptapods do. Instead, her worldview has changed so that it is part human, part heptapod. Dr. Banks enters the exchange with the heptapods. She knows it will be the last one. She also knows exactly what she is supposed to say in this exchange. Dr. Burghart also knows everything that is going to happen, because he, too is now fluent in Heptapod B. Flappy, Raspberry, Dr. Burghart, and Dr. Banks engage in a "performance," which ends with the heptapods packing up and leaving Earth (142). At the end of the story, we are back in the present, and Dr. Banks is on her front porch. Dr. Donnelly joins her and asks if she wants to make a baby.
The narrator of "Story of Your Life," Dr. Banks, addresses the story to her daughter, who is yet to be born. Dr. Banks can "remember" the future; the reader might feel confused at the odd change of tenses throughout the story if they are not oriented with this fact. She begins the story talking to her unnamed daughter in the present tense, describing how she and her husband are dancing romantically before a momentous point in their lives. She describes the scene as if it is currently happening, but then she tells her daughter that "when we move out, you'll still be too young to remember the house" (1). This odd change of tenses would ordinarily lead the reader to believe that Dr. Banks is actually looking back on her life from the end, using present tense merely to describe the scene more compellingly. However, as readers soon discover, the alternative is true—namely, that Dr. Banks knows the future, an ability granted to her by her fluency in Heptapod B (the visiting aliens' writing system).
"Story of Your Life" is a fictional version of a real-life process that occurs all over the world: that of linguistic discovery via fieldwork. Dr. Banks shows us the process she goes through in order to learn the heptapods' language. Her first step is to associate objects and gestures with the sounds the heptapods make. She compiles a list of visual representations of heptapod words—called spectographs—and compiles a glossary of many words of the language. She learns that Heptapod A (the heptapods' spoken language) is unlike any language on Earth but understandable within human linguistic study: it is characterized by free word order and many levels of center-embedded clauses. Dr. Banks also becomes fluent in the language heptapods use for writing, Heptapod B. She discovers that their writing consists of chains of semagrams that are not separated into separate words. Additionally, semagrams have no reference to speech—it is a completely different language from Heptapod A.
In "The Linguistics of Arrival: Heptapods, field linguistics, and Universal Grammar" linguist Jessica Coon explains the linguistics in "Story of Your Life" and the film Arrival, which was adapted from Chiang's novella. She was an advisor on the set of the film, which means she has deep knowledge of the linguistics at work in Chiang's story. In her essay, Coon foregrounds the concept of "Universal Grammar," which she defines as "the innate human capacity for language: core principles that all human languages share." "Universal Grammar" exists even though human languages "show an apparently high degree of variation"—for example, the grammar of English is different from the grammar of Japanese, which is different from the grammar of Quechua—"linguists have discovered that languages vary in limited and constrained ways." In other words, "languages tend to follow certain recipes in their grammars." There are universal properties to languages—these languages make up "Universal Grammar."
The concept of "Universal Grammar" is thrown into question when the heptapods arrive on Earth. Despite this, Dr. Banks and the other linguists soon discover that heptapod languages do follow understandable sets of rules. In fact, Heptapod A is not so different from human languages. As Dr. Banks explains, "[i]t didn't follow the pattern of human languages, as expected, but it was comprehensible so far: free word order, even to the extent that there was no preferred order from the clauses in a conditional statement, in defiance of a human language 'universal.' It also appeared that the heptapods had no objection to many levels of center-embedding clauses, something that quickly defeated humans. Peculiar, but not impenetrable" (114). Coon emphasizes that a flexible word order is not uncommon in languages of the world; however, all human languages follow Greenberg's Universal #14, which states that "the antecedent of a conditional (the if-clause) will always precede the consequent (the result)." In other words, on Earth, no matter what language you are speaking in, the cause will always precede the effect. However, this is not the case for heptapods, who are free to put the effect before the cause if they so desire. Additionally, the center-embedding of clauses is not necessarily grammatically incorrect; rather, it is not used in human languages because human short-term memory can not keep up with all of the different subjects and verbs. Heptapods clearly have a better memory than humans and are free to center-embed as many clauses as they want. In this way, as Coon emphasizes, "while Heptapod A violates human language norms, it does so in an expected way based on what we know about the heptapods' special cognitive abilities."
As Dr. Banks and the rest of the linguists make advancements in learning the heptapod languages, Dr. Donnelly and the rest of the physicists are having less luck. They make little leeway until they reach a breakthrough with the heptapods concerning Fermat's Principle of Least Time. Dr. Donnelly explains the principle to Dr. Banks, emphasizing to her that a ray of light will always take the fastest possible route, which means that it will change its angle of refraction when moving from one medium to another. Dr. Banks now understands, in her words, that "[a] ray of light has to know where it will ultimately end up before it can choose the direction it is moving in" (125). She connects this to what she knows about sentences in Heptapod B, which are not written one semagram at a time and instead are written all at once. In other words, the heptapod needs to know how the sentence will end before it writes the first line. Louise realizes that instead of experiencing time sequentially (like humans), heptapods experience time simultaneously, or all-at-once (also called "teleologically").
Here is the largest difference between humans and heptapods: humans are inherently bound by time; we experience everything as a sequence of moments, living in the present, remembering the past, and unable to see the future. Even our language reflects this bondage: it relies on temporally dependent sequences of words in a particular chronological order to convey meaning. The heptapods, however, are unbound by time, seeing all of existence (past, present, and future) as a simultaneous object. They therefore know the future, but even the term "future" seems inane to them. Their written language reflects this, being a temporally independent semasiographic system that does not depend on such chronological restraints. By learning this language, Louise's mind gradually begins to operate in the same way as that of the heptapods, allowing her foreknowledge of her own future.
Along with being about linguistic discovery, "Story of Your Life" is an examination of the nature of human free will. As Chiang explains in an interview about the movie Arrival (2016), which is based on "Story of Your Life," science fiction is a lens through which we can examine the human condition. "Story of Your Life" came from Chiang's desire to write a story about a character who must learn to deal with knowledge about the future. In the story, Dr. Banks must contend with the fact that she knows that she will have a daughter who will one day die, and that she does not have the ability to stop this death. This development precipitates all sorts of intriguing philosophical questions: Is the future really fixed? Do the terms past, present, and future actually have any meaning? Why can't Louise just act differently than she sees herself acting in the future and thus prove determinism wrong? Regarding that last question, Chiang proposes an ingenious and original solution, one with profound implications. He argues, using the metaphor of the Book of Ages, that if someone obtains the ability to see the future, she will necessarily act in the way she knows she will because she will want to, feeling an obligation to "enact chronology." Dr. Banks asks, "what if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?" (106).
Dr. Banks realizes that the meaning of "free will" changes depending on the context in which it is uttered. She realizes that "heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts" (137). The heptapods are different from humans in that "their motives coincide with history's purposes" (137). In other words, the decisions that they make align with the greater purposes of history. Because of this context, the definitions of "free will" and "freedom" inherently change: "Freedom isn't an illusion: it's perfectly real in the context of sequential consciousness. Within the context of simultaneous consciousness, freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion; it's simply a different context" (137). As she begins to understand the heptapods, she begins to think like them. Her actions begin to coincide with history's purposes: "now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: those who know the future don't talk about it" (137).